From Friendly Fire
It is a truth universally acknowledged that shit – for want of a better term – rolls downhill. Anyone in middle management or a junior position in an office or service industry environment can readily attest to this basic truth. It happens every day: bucks get passed, innocents get scapegoated, and those in power lord their authority over those beneath. Hierarchical structures – that is, any social, political, or professional organization predicated upon roles of dominance and subservience – will tend to invite this kind of behaviour.
The solution would seem to be to eliminate hierarchies altogether, a notion bruited by everyone from Karl Marx to 1960s Haight-Ashbury flower children. The problem? It doesn’t work. As Washington Post columnist Brian Klaas has pointed out, the law of large numbers makes the development of hierarchies inevitable. “Put enough people together,” Klaas writes, “and hierarchy and dominance always emerge. It’s an ironclad rule of history.”
Klaas makes that observation in his 2021 book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. Among other things, Klaas examines the work of Dacher Keltner, a scientist at the University of California–Berkeley dedicated to studying the cognitive effects of power. In his 2016 book The Power Paradox, Keltner argues that qualities associated with being a good person help make others admire someone and thereby aid in achieving power. But once in power, those traits “are swiftly eroded by the corrosive effects” status wreaks. Lord Acton, it turns out, was right: power really does corrupt.
Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany examines this process in his closely observed story “The Kitchen Boy,” about Hisham Fakhri, a medical student appointed to a surgical residency under the supervision of the dictatorial authoritarian Dr. Bassiouni.
The chairman of both the department of general surgery and the Arab Surgeons Association, Dr. Bassiouni is “too well known to require introduction.” So claims the anonymous first-person narrator of “The Kitchen Boy,” who then goes on to provide an extended résumé of the vaunted surgeon’s accomplishments and appointments. His achievements in the medical field are plentiful, but his renown, we are told, is by no means confined to his chosen profession. A public intellectual, Dr. Bassiouni frequently writes newspaper columns on the economy and “is invited to appear on television during Ramadan to tell us about his favourite dishes.” (The fact that he appears on television to talk about food during a month devoted to fasting is one of the story’s most trenchant jokes.)
“Being all of this,” the narrator tells us, Dr. Bassiouni “is, naturally, different from you and me – we the lustreless ordinary people devoid of any value or talent.”
It is worthwhile to consider Al Aswany’s approach to the narration here. Though the story is about Hisham and his various attempts to ingratiate himself with the towering figure of the great surgeon, Hisham is not the one doing the narrating. That job is given to an unnamed former classmate, who had “the opportunity to observe his talents, which carried everything before them.” The distinction is significant. Choosing to have the story narrated at one remove increases the psychic distance between protagonist and reader, thereby allowing a greater objectivity than would otherwise have been the case. This will become significant as the story progresses.
The bulk of the narrative involves an increasingly desperate Hisham working himself to the bone in an attempt to prove his mettle to Dr. Bassiouni, who responds by continually berating and insulting his young resident. Even calling Hisham a resident provides a skewed picture: in his first meeting with Dr. Bassiouni, the surgeon clarifies Hisham’s role in the department: “Your job here is that of the kitchen boy.” The kitchen boy is responsible for the most boring, menial tasks, such as collecting onion peels and hosing down the floor. He is the bottom rung of the ladder, useful only for rote jobs and as a punching bag for his superiors to abuse. This, Dr. Bassiouni says, is Hisham’s function in the surgery: “the resident in surgery is precisely the kitchen boy in the kitchen.”
What Hisham finds himself exposed to is what we in today’s parlance would call a “toxic workplace.” The doctors take great delight in cutting Hisham down, pointing out errors either miniscule or non-existent (an “error” is frequently defined as merely a different way of doing things). The surgeons routinely insult the residents, calling them “pig” or “ape”; as the narrator ruefully remarks, “the names of animals are employed in the same way that we ordinary mortals might, in our language, use ‘you.’ ” One doctor goes so far as to tell Hisham he will never become a surgeon and that he hopes Hisham will do the right thing and resign forthwith.
Hisham does not resign, instead doubling down on his determination to impress Dr. Bassiouni. He accepts the department’s “poisonous, hatred-charged atmosphere” on the understanding that if he just pays his dues, his innate talent will win the day and he will advance in his career.
The relationship between Hisham and Dr. Bassiouni is a trenchant dramatization of power dynamics in an institutional environment. Hisham is a good surgeon, and under the doctors’ tutelage he becomes even better. But his acceptance is never about innate ability; it is all about whether he can win Dr. Bassiouni’s approval, something much more arbitrary and incidental. Al Aswany’s story is, in large degree, about the chimerical nature of the supposed meritocracy.
Having the story narrated at one remove means that the reader is not privy to the key interaction between Dr. Bassiouni and his “kitchen boy” – we witness only the aftermath, as the great man becomes quickly enamoured with his young charge, whose fortunes reverse almost overnight. What transpires between the two men can only be guessed at; what is not ambiguous is the result. Hisham quickly moves up in rank and status, to the point that when his former schoolmates visit him, there is the feeling that “something about our old friend has changed.”
The change in Hisham has everything to do with Keltner’s observation about the qualities necessary to gain power and what happens to them once power is achieved. In the end, the ladder isn’t the correct metaphor to describe the way in which hierarchical abuse manifests in the context of Al Aswany’s story. It isn’t a ladder: it’s a wheel.